With the International Olympic Committee eager to resolve doubts about the age of some members of China’s gold medal women’s gymnastic team, doctors say that determining the girls' ages with 100 percent accuracy is nearly impossible.
To be eligible for the Olympics, the gymnasts must have turned 16 years old this year.
“Teeth are a great way to gauge development,” Dr. Gerald Curatola, clinical associate professor at New York University College of Dentistry and owner of Rejuvenation Dentistry, told FOXNews.com.
“The jaw is growing up until the age of 15, 16 years old,” he said. “And there’s a period where the adult teeth are actually pushing behind the baby teeth.”
As the child is in the stage of losing his or her baby teeth, known as exfoliation, and gaining adult teeth, known as eruption, there may be some overlapping, which can lead to a “kind of shark-mouth look,” Curatola said, and this is most common during the ages of 10 - 13 years old.
But, if a child has a delayed development, which can occur for a number of reasons, such as a hormone deficiency, it can affect the loss of his or her baby teeth, and the eruption of his or her adult teeth, Curatola said.
Last week, a photo of Chinese gymnast Deng Linlin, who is on record as being 16-years-old, showed a wide gap in her teeth.
“The children who have that cute look of a Jack-O-Lantern, where they are losing teeth and their adult teeth haven’t come in yet, they are missing their maxillary bicuspids – the upper teeth in front of the molars,” Curatola said. “Those children are usually younger than 16.”
In addition to reviewing dental records, you can try to determine the girls' ages by x-raying the athletes’ bones to determine how old the skeleton is, or at least to compare the x-ray to the bones of another 16-year-old, according to Dr. Reed Pyeritz, a Pennsylvania geneticist.
There is a caveat: If a child has a delayed onset of puberty, which often occurs in young girls who exercise excessively, her bones will appear like those of a much younger girl, said Pyeritz, chief of the medical division of genetics at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The bones have growing points that have growth plates and they mature at a steady rate,” Pyeritz said. “Obviously when you go through puberty, they go through acceleration, so in the fingers and wrist, they fuse at different times. Any bone that grows, there are standards for how mature they should be.”
Age falsification has been a problem in gymnastics since the 1980s, when the Olympics raised the minimum age for competitors from 14 to 15 to protect young athletes from serious injuries. The minimum age was raised to16 in 1997.
Younger gymnasts are considered to have an advantage because they are more flexible and are likely to have an easier time doing the tough moves the sport requires. They also aren't as likely to have a history of injuries or fear of failure.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.